A problem like Maria...

All-time favourite

A problem like Maria...
During the mid-1960s, America had enough turbulent problems to solve — like civil rights, women’s liberation, the hippie movement, and the Vietnam War. Despite this, America went ahead and thrust a completely new and compelling crisis on the world, which was… How do you solve a problem like Maria?

This problem was so intriguing and interesting that Myra Franklin, a gullible young woman from Wales, had to go and see The Sound Of Music 940 times to figure out the solution. Though she set a world record for the number of times someone has seen a single movie on the big screen, it is still unclear whether she managed to solve the problem of Maria or not.

Hollywood unleashed the problem of Maria onto the world on March 2, 1965, causing not only a worldwide wave of sympathy for the von Trapp family, but also an unprecedented global box-office profit-line spike.

Undisputed legacy

Fifty years later, The Sound of Music continues to be one of the most beloved, most successful and most viewed movies of all time. Yes, it had innumerable elements that could explain its success — acclaimed actors, memorable melodies, lovable lyrics, sentimental storyline, lush locales, nasty Nazis and naughty nuns. But its worldwide success was a phenomenon that defied logic, a classic example of the wholesome whole being greater than the sum of all its super parts.

But let’s start at the very beginning, which is apparently a very good place to start… The World War II is about to break loose. And in the small Austrian town of Salzburg, Maria, an irresponsible and irrepressible young woman, is conflicted about her current life in a convent. Fortunately, she gets a chance to see an alternate side of life when she becomes governess to the seven children of a widower, Austro-Hungarian Navy Captain Georg von Trapp. And so we embark on a journey with the high-spirited Maria, experiencing life through her laughter and tears, her songs and shenanigans, her heartaches and happiness.

Basically a love story set in a troubled war era, The Sound of Music gives new meaning to the expression “all is fair in love and war”. On one side, there is the tale of a cheery, chirpy, confused nun who falls in love with a strict, stern father of seven. But this father, also a navy captain who is aware of the horrors and futility of war, forsakes the war and his sense of patriotism for the sake of love and a life beyond the borders of his country.

On the flip side, we have two teenagers discovering the intensity of first love… Liesl, the oldest von Trapp girl, falls in love with a local boy Rolf. And the apparently mature 17-going-on-18 boy promises the unsure 16-going-on-17 girl that he will take care of her, implying a destiny of matrimony and harmony. But by this time, the dark forces of war have seduced the souls and looted the loyalty of impressionable young men, including that of Rolf. So this turns out to be a case of boy loves girl, boy betrays girl. What should have been a forever-love becomes another casualty of war.

Rolf literally blows the whistle when the von Trapp family is trying to sneak out of a concert, into a car and out of the country. Alerted by our whistle-blower Rolf, the Nazis try to chase after the fleeing von Trapps, but the wheels of their vehicles just fall off. This is the work of none other than the nuns of Salzburg, who arrive in time to save Maria and her family from the Nazis.

But who is behind this musical nuns-versus-Nazis adventure? The Sound of Music actually started out as a book by authors Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, based on the real life story of the singing Von Trapp family. And it might have been just another now-popular-soon-forgotten book, except that it caught the attention and fired the imagination of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the two culprits who decided to metamorphose the printed page into a visually grand stage musical. And with a big bang, The Sound of Music opened on Broadway on November 16, 1959. Not to be outdone by the Americans, the British version opened at London’s Palace Theatre on May 18, 1961.

As always, just when everyone thinks the curtains are closing on something interesting, Hollywood steps in and takes over. This Euro-American feel-good love story was brought to life on the big screen in 1965, climbing every mountain and stealing every film-going heart worldwide. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer became household names in remote corners of the globe.

Fan following

The main difference between the stage version and the film was the location. Robert Wise, the director, wisely chose to set the story in Salzburg, against the breath-taking backdrop of the Austrian Alps, making the movie ‘a blend of travelogue, a nature documentary, and a cinematographic tour’. Today, Salzburg is known as The Sound of Music city, and welcomes around 3,00,000 fans each year.

But fact, unfortunately, is far from fantasised fiction. Don’t forget that this story is based on true events. The real Maria Kutschera was born in 1905 on a train and delivered by the conductor. She soon became an orphan and was forced to enrol in a Benedictine convent in Salzburg. She was not the cheery, happy-go-lucky girl depicted in the film, but quite stern and controlling. During the shooting of the film, Wise refused to allow Maria to act as an adviser. The reason — “She was bossy, I didn’t like that about her.”

And the von Trapp family did not climb over the mountains from Austria to Switzerland as shown in the film, but took a train to Italy. After this, they sailed to America, started a hotel in Vermont and formed the famous Trapp Family singing group.

Maria herself had three children, and added together with her seven step-children, the hills of Vermont must have been alive with the sound of the Trapp Family singers. Johannes, who still runs the Trapp family hotel, says: “My mother was absolutely unsuited for a contemplative life in the abbey and I suspect the nuns were happy when the position she took opened up in our father’s house.”

On a personal note, in the mid-1980s, after a lot of rainbow chasing, I found myself back in college, to be specific, the post grad programme in mass communication at Madras Christian College. The first morning at the Heber Hall hostel restrooms, I heard a soulful, baritone rendition of “Edelweiss” coming out of one of the shower stalls.

I was surprised that 20-year-old musicals were still shower singing material. And years later, I met a Spanish nurse at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City who had garnered enviable collectibles related to the musical, including the original playbill from the theatre production.

Whether you are a secret shower stall singer in a Chennai college, an ardent collector of memorabilia in New York, or anyone anywhere in between, this musical has inspired people the world over to climb every mountain, follow every dream, discover a few of their favourite things and appreciate the oddities of life, like the sound of “Doe, a deer, a female deer”.

Things you didn't know about the film

1 The film won five Oscars in 1966, and became the highest grossing film in history, and is currently the fifth highest-grossing film of all time.

2 Julie Andrews nearly turned down the part due to its similarity to Mary Poppins. Christopher Plummer didn’t want anything to do with the film, referring to it as “The Sound of Mucus”.

3 Debbie Turner, who played second-youngest child Martha, lost many teeth during filming. So each time she lost a tooth, it would be replaced with a fake one. 

4 Andrews and the child actors had to be continually hosed down while filming the scene where they fall out of the boat, in order to remain realistically soaking wet.

5 “Edelweiss” is American, not Austrian. It was the last song Oscar Hammerstein II ever wrote.

6 Charmian Carr (who plays Liesl) injured her ankle while filming the song “16 Going on 17”, and a bandage can be seen wrapped around her foot in the earlier versions of the film.

7 When Julie Andrews sang the opening track on that idyllic hillside, she was being blown about by the helicopter used to film the aerial shot.

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